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Trefor Jenkins

Trefor Jenkins was born and educated in a small mining town in South Wales. He studied medicine at King’s College and Westminster Hospital in London. In 1960 he arrived in Africa to take up a position as Medical Officer at the Wankie Colliery Hospital in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia).
He later moved to South Africa where, after a short spell as a Senior House Officer in the Professorial Surgical Unit at the University of Natal, he moved to the Department of Anatomy at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1963, where Professor Phillip Tobias helped to stimulate his interest in the history of the peoples of Africa. In 1965 Trefor Jenkins began his long association with the South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR), initially as a pathologist in the Blood Group Research and Transfusion Laboratories, then as Head of the Department of Human Genetics in the School of Pathology of the University of the Witwatersrand and the SAIMR- a position he held with great distinction for 22 years, until he retired from his full-time professorial post in 1998.

During his career Trefor A Jenkins has written or co-written close to 350 scientific publications, which include peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, monographs, editorials and book reviews in the areas of human genetics, medical ethics and health and epidemiology. Together with his long-time collaborator, George Nurse, he also has co-written two books, Health and the Hunter Gatherer and The Peoples of Southern Africa and their Affinities. 

Trefor Jenkins has made major contributions to the fields of laboratory, clinical and evolutionary genetics, which have been published in 274 peer-reviewed articles, many of them in the best international journals. His early research on blood groups and serological polymorphisms, for which the University of London awarded him an MD degree in 1973, led to the introduction of new technical knowledge in the study of gene makers in different populations. He enthusiastically coupled his medical training with population genetics to advance both biomedical research and population and evolutionary genetics in South Africa.
Between 1977 and 1993 he served with great distinction as Director of the Human Ecogenetics Research Unit of the Medical Research Council of South Africa. During this time he and his colleagues played a pioneering role in adopting and applying molecular genetic technology to research into the aetiology, diagnosis and prevention of inherited disorders in Southern Africa. Under his guidance, a molecular diagnostic laboratory was created and the first pre-natal diagnosis in South Africa was performed there in 1984. His team’s work led, among other things, to determination of the origins of the mutations that cause sickle cell anaemia in Africa, to the elucidation of the molecular basis of albinism, and to the reconstruction of the history and affinities of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.

In a seminal review article, published in the Journal of Medical Genetics in 1990, Trefor Jenkins provided a comprehensive overview of the state of medical genetics in South Africa and offered key insights into the impact on them of apartheid. Over the years he has played a key role in the education, training and mentoring a large number clinical geneticists, molecular geneticists and genetic counsellors, many of whom have moved on to leadership positions in medical schools and diagnostic laboratories both in South Africa and abroad. Trefor Jenkins’s other major area of interest is medical ethics, a field in which he has published widely. He was a pioneer in establishing an undergraduate teaching programme in Medical Ethics at this University and has maintained an active involvement in teaching this important topic. The prominent role he played with Professor Frances Ames and other colleagues in dealing with the ethical and professional implications of Steve Biko’s death set a fine example of the medical responsibility to maintain high ethical standards. In recognition of his contributions, Professor Jenkins was awarded the Benjamin Pogrund Medal for advancing the cause of non-racialism in the University of the Witwatersrand in 1998.

His combined interests in medical genetics and the social implications of the application of genetic tests led him to play a prominent role in the global debate about the use of genetic information- a debate with deep implications for our humanity. He has been invited to contribute on this topic to many national and international meetings, including international congresses on Human Genetics, the Royal society of South Africa, the Human Genome Organisation and the Africa Human Genome Initiative. He represents the South African region and the African continent in the Human Genome Diversity Project and has remained actively involved in international collaborative projects on the use of genetic markers to study human origins. His public engagement with these issues, through his participation in radio interviews, the SAFM Summer Lecture series of 2002, and in talks to many societies and lay groups, has given prominence to the major scientific and ethical advances in this area. 

The humane principles that guided Trefor Jenkins’s entire life of teaching, research and writing came into critical focus in the early 1990s, when he chaired a University committee with the task of establishing ethical principles for HIV testing and confidentiality in the medical setting. Professor Jenkins guided the committee with a sure ethical and philosophical hand, leading it to agree on a sound, practically feasible and morally justifiable set of principles that protect the dignity and rights of patients while permitting doctor-initiated testing where it is truly warranted. The committee’s formulation won widespread recognition and acceptance, and later formed the basis on which the entire South African medical profession regulated the questions of testing and confidentiality.

Over the years Trefor Jenkins has occupied many positions of leadership and his work has been recognized through a host of academic distinctions and prizes, which include election to Fellowships of the Galton Institute in London, the Royal Society of South Africa and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. He received a Silver Medal from the SA Medical Research Council, the Biology Centennial Award for Science and Humanity from Case Western Reserve University and, most recently, was awarded the inaugural ‘Science for Society’ Gold Medal from the Academy of Science of South Africa. He has also received Honorary Degrees from the University of Cardiff and the University of Cape Town and, in 1989, was the Galton Lecturer, and in 1994, the Sims Travelling Professor of the College Medicine of South Africa.

Trefor Jenkins’s post-retirement years have been marked by the same vision, vigour and passion he displayed during the earlier stages of his career. In addition to holding an Emeritus Professorship from the University of the Witwatersrand, he is an honorary lecturer in Biomedical Ethics in the Faculty of Health Sciences and in, 2004, assumed the position of Interim Director of the University’s Human Evolution Institute for Research. His life has been distinguished by the manner in which he has intertwined, with the utmost humility, his pursuit of academic excellence with the well-being of his fellow humans. He is not only intolerant of injustice, inhumanity and indecent behaviour; he fights them with a passion that is moderated by an understanding of human weakness and a fine sense of humour. His life exemplifies the ability to rise above humble beginnings by making the most of educational opportunities, and contributing to society through academic excellence and upholding high moral values that embrace social responsibility. It is with great pride and pleasure that the University confers upon Trefor Jenkins the degree of Doctor of Medicine honoris causa.